When first hearing of, or being diagnosed, with multiple sclerosis many people ask ‘what is MS?' and worry about things like symptoms, life expectancy and available treatments. This page will give you an overview of multiple sclerosis, what causes it, and how it can be diagnosed and treated.

You can also learn more about the different aspects of MS and download our range of helpful resources here.

Do you need help or more information?

If you have any further questions about MS or how we at MS Queensland can help, please contact our NeuroAssist  team on 1800 177 591 or info@msqld.org.au.

Please note: the information provided in this section should not be taken as medical advice. Each individual with MS should consult his/her neurologist or family GP for advice regarding diagnosis, symptoms and treatment.

About MS

 

SO WHAT IS MS?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is one of the most common diseases of the central nervous system. It may affect the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve and impacts more young people in Australia than any other chronic, progressive neurological disease.

The term multiple sclerosis means ‘many scars’ and refers to the damage caused in the central nervous system. It is a very variable condition and the symptoms depend on which areas of the central nervous system have been affected. There is no set pattern to MS and everyone with MS has a different set of symptoms, which vary from time to time and can change in severity and duration - even in the same person. Whether you or someone you know has been diagnosed with MS, please find below a number of questions you may be looking for answers to. 

WHAT CAUSES MS?

There is no known single cause of MS but many genetic and environmental factors have been shown to contribute to its development. The current hypothesis is that the disease appears in those individuals who have a genetic predisposition to react to some infectious agent in the environment such as a virus or bacterium. This means that the disease is not genetically transmitted in the same way as hair or eye colour, for example. There seems to be a combination of genes that makes one person more susceptible to the agent(s) than someone else with a different genetic makeup. While several different viruses and bacteria have been studied for their possible role in MS, the trigger(s) have not yet been found. Environmental and psychological factors may play a part that we do not yet understand. We do know, however, that MS is not a contagious disease and you do not need to be concerned about transmitting MS to those around you.

Wrongly programmed immune cells enter the CNS, causing inflammation in the brain, spinal cord, and/or optic nerves. It is this inflammation that can cause damage to the protective myelin coating around the nerve cells, producing scars (also called plaques or lesions) that interfere with nerve transmission. While many of these scars may have no apparent effect, others are responsible for the various symptoms of MS. Each person’s symptoms will vary depending on the particular location(s) where the scarring (demyelination) occurs. The possible symptoms of MS include: fatigue, changes in vision, stiffness, weakness, imbalance, sensory problems such as numbness, tingling, and pain, changes in bladder and/or bowel function, sexual changes, emotional changes, speech difficulties, and problems with thinking and memory. Fortunately, most people develop only a few of these symptoms over the course of their MS, and most are able to manage their symptoms with assistance and support.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN SYMPTOMS OF MS?

There is no typical MS. Most people with MS will experience more than one symptom, and though there are symptoms common to many people, no person would have all of them. Common symptoms of MS include:
  • Fatigue: a debilitating kind of general fatigue which is unpredictable or out of proportion to the activity. Fatigue is one of the most common (and one of the most troubling) symptoms of MS.
  • Visual problems: blurring of vision, double vision (diplopia), optic neuritis, involuntary rapid eye movement, (rarely) total loss of sight.
  • Balance and coordination problems: loss of balance, tremors, unstable walking (ataxia), giddiness (vertigo), clumsiness of a limb, lack of co-ordination, weakness (this can particularly affect the legs and walking). 
  • Spasticity: altered muscle tone can and muscle stiffness can affect mobility and walking, spasms.
  • Altered sensation: tingling, ‘pins and needles’, numbness (paraesthesia), burning sensations.
  • Pain: muscle pains, facial pain (such as trigeminal neuralgia), stabbing sharp pains, burning tingling pain.
  • Abnormal speech: slowing of speech, slurring of words, changes in rhythm of speech, difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia).
  • Bladder and bowel problems: bladder problems include the need to pass water frequently and/or urgently, incomplete emptying or emptying at inappropriate times. Bowel problems include constipation and, infrequently, loss of bowel control.
  • Sexuality and intimacy: impotence, diminished arousal, loss of sensation.
  • Sensitivity to heat: this symptom very commonly causes a transient worsening of symptoms.
  • Cognitive and emotional disturbances: loss of short-term memory, loss of concentration, judgment or reasoning.

WHAT ARE THE EARLY SIGNS OF MS?

As MS affects every person differently (men and women) there’s no one sign that shows up earlier than any other. If you find you’re displaying one or some of the signs listed above, it’s advised to see your GP and talk about your concerns. Signs and symptoms of MS are not always easily detectable so it’s important that you talk to a medical professional if you‘re displaying any of the above symptoms.Whilst some of these symptoms are immediately obvious, others such as fatigue, altered sensation, memory and concentration problems are often hidden symptoms. These can be difficult to describe to others and sometimes family and carers do not appreciate the effects these have on the person with MS and on employment, social activities and quality of life. 
 

ARE THERE DIFFERENT TYPES OF MS?

Relapsing remitting MS is the most common form of MS; it is characterised by flare-ups of the neurological symptoms of MS, also known as relapses or attacks, followed by periods of recovery or remission.

Secondary progressive MS (SPMS) is a secondary phase of relapsing remitting MS that can develop years, to decades following the initial onset of relapsing symptoms. SPMS is characterised by a progressive worsening of symptoms (accumulation of disability) over time, with no obvious signs of remission.

Primary progressive MS (PPMS) is diagnosed in approximately 10-15% of people with MS. PPMSis characterised by a progressive worsening of symptoms and disability right from the beginning, without periods of recovery or remission.

WHO CAN GET MS?

Anyone may develop MS but there are some patterns. Three out of four Australians with MS are women and the average age of diagnosis is just 30. Studies suggest that genetic factors make certain individuals more susceptible than others, but there is no evidence that MS is directly inherited. It occurs more commonly among people with northern European ancestry. People of African, Asian, and Hispanic backgrounds are also diagnosed with MS, however, the incidence is much lower.

HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE MS?

Approximately 25,600 Australians have MS and on average, more than 10 Australians are diagnosed with MS every week. It is estimated that every year the number of people diagnosed increases by 4%. Worldwide, MS affects about 2.5 million people. Because of the difficulty in diagnosing the disease, and because symptoms can be completely invisible, these numbers can only be estimated. 

DOES MS ALWAYS CAUSE PARALYSIS?  

No. The majority of people with MS do not become severely disabled. Two-thirds of people who have MS remain able to walk, though many will need an aid, such as a cane or crutches, and some will use a scooter or wheelchair because of fatigue, weakness, balance problems, or to assist with conserving energy. 

IS MS CONTAGIOUS OR INHERITED?  

No. MS is not contagious and is not directly inherited. Studies do indicate that genetic factors may make certain individuals susceptible to the disease.

CAN MS BE CURED?

Not yet. There are now FDA-approved medications that have been shown to "modify" or slow down the underlying course of MS. In addition, many therapeutic and technological advances are helping people manage symptoms. Advances in treating and understanding MS are made every year, and progress in research to find a cure is very encouraging. 

WHY IS MS SO DIFFICULT TO DIAGNOSE?   

In early MS, symptoms that might indicate any number of possible disorders come and go. Some people have symptoms that are very difficult for physicians to interpret, and these people must "wait and see." While no single laboratory test is yet available to prove or rule out MS, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a great help in reaching a definitive diagnosis. If you have been newly diagnosed with MS please click here for more information.

QUICK MS FACTS

Here are some quick facts about MS you may not know...

  • MS is a progressive disease of the nervous system, for which there is no cure.
  • An estimated 2.5 million people in the world have MS.
  • 3 out of 4 Australians with MS are women.
  • MS is the one of the most common diseases of the central nervous system in young adults.
  • There are three types of MS: relapsing remitting, secondary progressive, and primary progressive.
  • Sclerosis means scars; these are the plaques or lesions in the brain and spinal cord.
  • In MS, the protective myelin covering of the nerve fibres in the central nervous system is damaged.
  • Inflammation & ultimate loss of myelin causes disruption to nerve transmission & affects many bodily functions.
  • While the exact cause of MS is not known, much is known about its effect on immune system function which may be the ultimate cause of the disease.
  • MS is not directly hereditary, although genetic susceptibility plays a part in its development.
  • MS is not contagious.
  • Diagnosis of MS is generally between 20 and 40 years of age, although onset may be earlier.
  • Life span is not significantly affected by MS.
  • There are a wide range of symptoms. Fatigue is one of the most common.
  • The incidence of MS increases in countries further from the equator.
  • There is no drug that can cure MS, but treatments are available which can modify the course of the disease.
  • Many of the symptoms of MS can be successfully managed and treated.

Source: Multiple Sclerosis International Federation (2012) 

MORE INFORMATION

If you have any further questions about MS or how we can help, please contact our NeuroAssist Team on 1800 177 591 or info@msqld.org.au